Stretches to release lower back pain offer both physical and psychological benefits. They can help you transition from overwhelming pain to a stronger body and a more peaceful state of mind. Stretching is encouraged along with other treatments offered by your pain specialist.
It is important to know the reason for your low back pain, since some problems readily improve with stretching, while others do not. Low back strain that involves mostly the muscles and ligaments, can improve with stretching. Sudden disc injuries that cause acute pressure on a spinal nerve can also benefit from stretching. Some spinal deformities, like mild scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) may also benefit from stretching.
Low back pain due to chronic diseases is unlikely to improve with stretching because permanent tissue damage has already occurred. For example, arthritis causes inflammation and destruction of your back joints. Osteoporosis causes bone loss and may result in fractures of the backbones. Stretching is not directly effective for these conditions but can help with general strengthening or with referred pain (pain that travels) to the overlying back muscles.
Common causes for low back pain
Low back strain can start with:
- Extreme physical exertion – you can strain muscles by stretching them too far, causing tiny tears in their tissues.
- Falls – injuries can result in much more than a muscle strain. They can cause subluxations, disc herniations, or vertebral fractures.
- Repeated bending – repetitive forceful motions while bending such as with rowing or golf can cause muscles to tighten and tear.
- Lifting heavy objects incorrectly – may strain the lower back muscles and cause vertebral misalignment (the bones that lend support to your back shift out of place). It may cause a disc herniation (shift) where the disc starts pressing on spinal nerves or even on your spinal cord.
- Poor posture – slouching adds strain on the low back muscles and on the spine.
- Weak abdominal muscles – low back muscles are balanced by opposing, abdominal core muscles. If abdominal muscles are weak, the lower back is at increased risk for injury.
- Chronic diseases – diseases that cause degeneration of the spinal joints and bones.
- Congenital deformities – spinal defects present at birth.
Stretching should be done in a safe manner, that prevents further injuries or that further increases existing ones. A doctor should always be consulted when you have pain, before you attempt any stretches.
It helps to:
- Wear comfortable clothing.
- Pick a non-slippery, flat surface to stretch on, preferably a mat.
- Make sure you are hydrated – switching positions from laying flat to standing, when dehydrated, can lower your blood pressure and make you dizzy.
- Stretch one side of the body at a time.
- Stop if you experience pain.
- Hold stretches for 15-30 seconds – this improves your range of motion.
- Repeat stretches at least 2-5 times – with repeated stretches the muscle is able to reach its maximum length.
Lower back stretches for muscle or ligament strain
Back stretches work best for strain that starts in the muscles and ligaments. Muscles and ligaments in your back hold the bones of your spinal column in place. If weakened, they no longer support the bones of your spinal column correctly, thus causing instability and low back pain.
Knees to chest stretch
- Lie on your back with knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands on the back of your thighs and pull your legs toward your chest.
- Pull until a gentle stretch is felt.
Supine twist stretch
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Keeping your back flat on the floor, rotate your hips to the left, lowering your legs down to the floor. You may put a pillow between your legs and the floor, to make this stretch easier.
- Hold, rest, repeat.
- Keeping your back flat on the floor, this time, rotate your hips to the right, lowering your legs down to the floor.
Supine abdominal draw-in stretch
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Push the small of your back down and into the floor by tightening your lower abdominal muscles.
Cat – Camel Stretch
- Kneel down on the floor in an all-fours position on your hands and knees.
- Curl your back up toward the ceiling like an angry cat.
- Return to the starting position.
- Pull your stomach down to the floor, hollowing out your back.
Seated Forward Curl Stretch
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
- Curl your neck, upper back, and low back forward until your chest is on your thighs and you can touch the ground with your hands.
- Return to starting position and repeat.
In order to see these stretches, visit this website.
Lower back stretches for herniated discs
Low back pain can start when discs, the cartilage cushions that absorb shocks in your spinal column, tear and/or leak and start pressing on nearby spinal nerves. Stretching may help take pressure off a compressed nerve, in situations where an injury just occurred and nerve pain is new. However, if the disc herniation/nerve problem is chronic (lasting for many months or years) stretching, alone, is not likely to solve the problem.
- Lay flat on the floor, on your stomach.
- Place your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Gently raise your chest off the floor while keeping your weight on your elbows.
Standing back bend
- Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart.
- Net, place your hands on the backs of your hips.
- Keep your knees straight and slowly bend backward as far as you can without feeling pain.
Lower back stretches for mild scoliosis
Spine deformities such as mild scoliosis (abnormal curve in your spine) may benefit from stretching. Severe scoliosis cases require surgery. People with scoliosis tend to bend in one direction and have difficulty moving in the opposite direction.
Stretching can help release tension in the muscles surrounding the spine, in the area affected by the scoliosis. Furthermore, it also increases blood flow and lubrication to the spine joints, which keeps the body flexible. It is important to know the direction of your scoliosis. Your doctor can help you with this, based on your X-ray and exam.
Stretching in the opposite direction of your spinal curve does not help. Stretching is best in the direction your spine bends, in order to allow the overly elongated muscles to pull back and shorten. This helps provide balance to your posture.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms in front of your chest.
- Pull your arms backwards and press your shoulder blades together, stretching the chest.
Right-Angle Wall Stretch
- Stand in front of a wall.
- Place your hands on a wall at shoulder level, shoulder-width apart.
- Walk your feet back until they’re directly under your hips.
- Push your palms into the wall, lengthening your spine.
- Keep your lower back tucked in and arms straight.
- Stand with your arms extended in front of your chest.
- Lace your fingers and push them away from your chest until you feel a stretch in your upper back.
- Hold, release, rest and repeat.
- Kneel, and then push your hips back toward your heels.
- Reach your arms forward and lay your hands flat on the floor.
- Breathe into the stretch.
Safety tips for stretching
Stretching is thought of as a gentle activity. However, it can still cause injury if not performed properly and according to the advice of your doctor or therapist’s advice.
Before stretching, take the following precautions:
- Know your medical history – check with your doctor to make sure you understand all the causes for your pain before you start stretching. You don’t want to improve one area such as your back, with a stretch that could hurt another area, such as your knees.
- Have the necessary props – get blocks, stretch bands, pillows that allow you to modify a stretch and make it easier to a degree that makes you comfortable.
- Wait a couple of days after an injury – don’t start stretching if you are having excruciating pain right after an injury. You will need rest, pain relief, icing/heat for a couple of days.
- Do not exercise while heavily medicated – exercising right after you take your pain medications may mask your pain. While you don’t want to have excessive pain while stretching, you still need to know your body’s limits, as you start a new stretch.
For an evaluation of your lower back pain, make an appointment with one of our NSPC pain specialists.
Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Feb;7(1):109-19.